Despite inroads for women, Congress and the FL Legislature remain male bastions — and it’s an embarrassment

Florida Capitol, Colin Hackley

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California made history around the globe earlier this month, when she became the first vice president-elect of the United States. In a victory speech, Harris spoke passionately about a country of possibilities for little girls.

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” Harris said.

The phrase resonated not only for young girls but older women, like myself, who have been waiting for decades for a woman to make it to the Oval Office or take on the vice president role.

Meanwhile, at least 141 women will serve in the 117th Congress – a new record, according to 2020 election results tracked by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. At least 117 women will serve in the U.S. House and 24 in the U.S. Senate.

Women will represent at least 26.9% of all members of the U.S. House, according to the center, which would be an increase over the current House makeup. Women will at least be 24% of all members of the U.S. Senate, though those numbers are not finalized.

That’s when I stopped and stared instead of clapped and cheered because those percentages for female representation in Congress are an embarrassment.

Given that women represent about 51 percent of the population in the United States, far more women should be in Congress.

Likewise, more women should be in the Florida Legislature.

But the reality is that both Congress and the Florida Legislature remain male bastions.

The Florida House and Senate convenes Tuesday for constitutionally-mandated organization sessions, a lead-up to the regular legislative session that will start March 2, 2021.

Following the 2020 elections, lawmakers in both the Florida House and Senate will be lopsided, with far more men than women.

The state House will have 80 men and just 40 women, or 33 percent of the chamber, based on Florida division of election results and the Florida House of Representatives. That means women will make up only a third of the House chamber.

That 33 percent appears to be higher than the percentage for the U.S. House. Even so, I’m not clapping and cheering because it’s embarrassing that the Florida House has so few women lawmakers.

As to the Florida Senate, there will be 25 men and 15 women senators, with women representing 37.5% of the chamber. That figure is higher than the percentage of women senators in the U.S. Senate and higher than the state House numbers. But I’m not clapping and cheering because 37.5 percent isn’t good enough.

Keep in mind that Florida’s population is about 51 percent female, so more women should be in the Legislature.

The problem: Too many women candidates aren’t winning for a variety of reasons. Some women don’t feel qualified and experienced to run for office — though men are usually more likely to feel confident in running.

Women can face long workdays and family obligations and sometimes feel they need to be asked to run for office rather than just doing it.

Women may need more help and training for their campaigns, or more money to keep up with contributions that male opponents get, though sometimes women do have sufficient financial help.

I did an analysis looking at the 120 races for the state House in the 2020 election season, and it was fascinating but also troubling. A total of 96 races  competed in the Nov. 3 general election. (Another 24 races were essentially unopposed.)

Of the 96 contests, the breakout showed 34 races that involved male candidates only, so a male, of course, won.

Eight races had female candidates only, so in those cases, a woman won.

The most interesting races — 54 in all — involved both male and female candidates opposing each other.

Who won most of those races? Men.

For whatever reason, voters more often chose the male candidate over the female candidate.

Overall, men won in 34 races and women, in 20 races. That means, 63 percent of those races led to a male candidate winning, compared to 37 percent for women.

The Senate had only 20 races in the 2020 general election, and only 12 races involved both male and female opponents. Still, men more often won in those races too.

All of this doesn’t bode well for women, and it likely will take time, energy and money to keep up with male candidates capturing seats in state Houses and Congress.

At some point — and I hope it won’t be decades — women will be in the majority in Congress and state Houses across the country.

And I will clap and cheer.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.